When I graduated from art college I was working in retail. I’ve told this story many times already which you can read online at Fast Company. I was making less than $9 per hour in the early oughts and also about $400 per month in freelance illustration work. I left home when I was about 26 years old and moved into a one bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto with my friend Melissa. Our rent was less than $900 per month and we lived there for about 3 years. During that time, I paid for whatever I could with the money I made, except for one time in April when I asked my father for $400 to pay for my rent. I remember this because I felt ashamed to ask him for help. I moved out of my parents’ home because my father and I were always arguing. I was also ashamed because even though I won the top award at school, in the Illustration department, I hardly got any freelance work except for a few magazines that were art directed by two of my former professors, and two Canadian newspapers: The Globe and Mail, and The National Post. My primary source of income came from my retail job.
In our apartment, Melissa slept in the bedroom and we divided up the living room with bookshelves and reed mats to create a bedroom for me. I slept on the floor, on two sleeping bags because I couldn’t afford to buy a bed, and the leftover living room space we used as a workspace. She was studying fashion at Ryerson University and I was a newbie illustrator. In the center was a longish, collapsable table that bisected the room in half, on which she kept her serger; across from it was a small TV and a desk unit that my parents bought me from IKEA on which my computer sat. I look back fondly at that time in my life. It felt creative, it felt spontaneous, it felt poetic. Eventually I saved up some money to buy a loft bed which allowed me to put a drawing desk underneath it.
It was like this for a couple of years, and I was scared that I wouldn’t “make it.” I pounded the pavement with my portfolio, trying my best to schedule meetings with anyone who would look at my work. I asked my former professors and the Chair of the department for advice on what to do. I asked friends who graduated from advertising and graphic design, who were working as junior art directors for help. I remember one of my first paid jobs was doing a painting for an ad agency that my friend worked at. A client of theirs was the Toronto Blue Jays. I did the job, the client kept the painting and I vaguely recall getting $1000 for it, which was only a fraction of what I should have been paid, but I was hungry.
I tried everything I could think of, and I asked everyone I knew for help. I made a lot of illustrations, personal artwork to keep my portfolio fresh. Even though I couldn’t articulate it then, I believed that without practice, without continuously making work my talent and skills would go away. I heard someone say in an interview that skill unlocks talent. I believed this. I still believe this.
I don’t know how much money I was making during that time, but it was very little. Fast forward to when I started getting steady illustration work after signing with an agent, I remember feeling like I’d hit the jackpot. In the first few years I was working, I was making about 100 illustrations per year. If I remember correctly, I’d grossed about $70,000 to $80,000 during my first year, which was almost three times what my mom made when she was taking care of us. This wasn’t something I ever expected would happen. So why am I telling you this?…
The reason is because when people ask me questions about transitioning from a student to a professional, I sometimes skip over parts of my life to make the storytelling easier because those experiences don’t translate into practical advice — the stories are too personal and sometimes sad. But through the years I realized the failures and the break downs help to shape the way in which success looks like, and to give it meaning. Experiences are shared by many, and telling this part of my story is a reminder that after we graduate from college that not all of us hit the ground running. Success is an accumulation of smaller steps, pausing, and falling forwards and backwards. It’s not until you’re far away from the starting point, and have hindsight that you can truly see how much distance you’ve traveled.